How can African countries really provide sustainable energy for poor people?

Engineers working on solar technology

Last month, delegates drawn from across the world gathered at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi for the second session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) to discuss the theme ‘Delivering on the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’.

I was privileged to be a panelist at a side event on ‘Sustainable Energy and Technology’, organized by UNEP and ACTS, which attracted over 150 participants. I spoke about what institutional transformations are needed to move to a low carbon economy, and what role African policy and research institutions can and should play in promoting a low-carbon transition.

There is a long road ahead. Despite the strong policy discourse perpetuated by the international community on the need for clean and sustainable energy for all, Africa has not achieved meaningful transformation to clean and sustainable energy. The continent performed dismally on this in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), compared to other developing regions.

Now, in the post-2015 era, clean and sustainable energy is critical to ensure Africa succeeds in meeting the new Sustainable Development Goals. Clean energy not only helps to decrease emissions (helping African countries deliver on their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), but finding sustainable energy sources will also play a large role in spurring social, economic and environmental benefits.

The challenge, however, is great. As African nations begin the task of designing policies and interventions to achieve the SDGs, the Africa Regional Consultative Meeting on the Sustainable Development Goals acknowledged that the continent faces multiple institutional, socio-cultural complexities that require institutional transformations in order achieve the SDGs.

What kind of change is needed?

What institutional transformations are needed to realize social, economic and environmental benefits from clean energy in an African context?

The problem with accessing clean energy in Africa is not that clean energy technologies are not there; or that there is a lack of policies; nor that there aren’t key actors pushing the agenda.

Rather, the big problem is a lack of proper implementation pathways to increase inclusive access to renewable energy, especially for marginalized groups. While African countries have put in place laws, strategies and policies calling for inclusive or universal access to clean and green energy, the implementation of these policies remains poor.  It’s time, therefore, to move away from policy debates and towards finding effective ways of implementing these policies.

Energy for the poor?

Right now, the clean energy policy debate in Africa is politically perpetuated by governments, but practical implementation is mostly driven by the civil society and private sector. This means policy implementation is dominated by market based mechanisms. The dominance of these market mechanisms limits access for most poor people, who lack the financing options to benefit from them.

Insights drawn from the inception phase of the Transformative pathways to sustainability project  under the African Sustainability Hub, hosted at ACTS, illuminate this challenge. Our findings so far have already raised concerns that even emerging business models deemed to be pro-poor (for example, mobile-enabled payments for solar) are still far from achieving inclusive clean energy for all especially the poorest in Africa.  Unsurprisingly, even in situations where governments have made some efforts to implement clean energy (e.g. the geothermal and wind sectors in Kenya), interest has remained on national economic development – with no clear institutional pathways to channel benefits to the poor, or investment in household-level renewable energy systems.

Transformative change is needed, then, if African countries are to make meaningful progress towards achieving inclusive sustainable energy in their SDG efforts. Goal 7 calls for “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

Opening up technology

What would this look like? Transformative implementation pathways would expand spaces for participation to include all social groups, especially the poor, in clean energy technology development and deployment. This would enable various social groups targeted for these technologies to understand the technological contents and full extent of associated benefits.  As it stands now, most poor people are simply recipients of clean energy technologies imported from elsewhere.

In order for clean technologies to meet the needs of Africa, and particularly Africa’s poor, these technologies need to be developed and deployed with the specific circumstances and needs of the poor in mind, which can only be accomplished through including them in the design process.

In fact, fortunately enough, most African governments have enacted policies which emphasise public participation and inclusivity both in clean energy and other sectors. The big question, however, remains whether these policies create truly open spaces for participation. Indeed, emerging regimes which restrict civil society activities within various African countries (e.g. the Kenyan NGO Coordination Council Board, or Uganda’s National Bureau for NGOs) appear to undermine the notion of inclusivity which is envisaged in these policies.

The role of research and policy institutions

What role can African research and policy institutions play in transforming the growth of African economies?

African research institutions have a key role to play. They provide a bridge between global energy frameworks and technologies on the one side, and national and local policy and socioeconomic contexts on the other. While the global discourses and aspirations enshrined in the post-2015 SDGs and the Paris Agreement are now becoming priorities for African governments, operationalizing them is often cumbersome and challenging. African think tanks, including my own institution, the African Centre for Technology Studies, can help considerably by providing research and policy advice on how to domesticate these global agreements.

The policy landscape is rife with sectoral competition and path dependencies in resource governance. In this context, pan-African research institutions are expected to provide independent and objective support to national policy processes. They can do this through conducting research that involves all stakeholders to generate research evidence on the best practices, policy options, and implementation pathways.

In this way, African research institutions are well-placed to provide global, national and local policy players with evidence on the best practices, possible barriers and success factors that are critical to sustainable energy transformation. African research institutions can also play a role through capacity building for policymakers, communities, civil society and private sector actors. In doing this, they will create the capacities, attitude change and partnerships to support transformation.

International links

But partnership with international actors is also important for these African research institutions to thrive. For a long time, international research and development partners have played a key role in supporting clean and sustainable energy for all, through research, capacity building or financial support. This important role can be enhanced through strengthening strategic collaboration with African institutions in a manner that leverages mutual benefits.

International partners also stand to benefit from the knowledge of African institutions about the African context. In exchange, African institutions can draw lessons and expertise from their international partners as they develop transformative approaches to tackling Africa’s sustainable development challenges.

Emerging international partnerships, such as the Africa Sustainability Hub of the Pathways to Sustainability Global Consortium, are proving to be useful platforms for long term research collaboration and capacity building. They recognize that transformation to clean and sustainable energy is a long term undertaking, dependent on a set of transformative research and policy skills.

Image: Women Barefoot Solar Engineers of Africa by barefootcollege on Flickr

One comment:

  1. Dear Atela,

    I would like to hear your opinion on the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project (LTWP)? As you write in your blog, you say that partnerships with international actors are quite important. Do you consider the LTWP to be part of this argument? Moreover, you argue that there is a lack of “proper implementation pathways”, do you consider the LTWP a proper implementation pathway (why/why not?

    Kind regards


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